There can be no greater plan for you than sainthood, sharing in the life of God as a member of the divine family, since there can be no other alternative outcome in your life exceeding the beauty and magnificence of the salvific plan of God’s loving goodness.
By Deacon Frederick Bartels
31 December 2012
Who and what is a saint, and why should anyone want to be one? Is it in any way important to think about the saints? What do their lives mean for our lives? Given the nature of our modern, hyper-energized and technologically advanced world, are they still relevant today? Could it be that, as some suggest, the saints are best categorized as ancient relics whose lives of so-called heroic virtue and heavenly apparitions are more the product of pious imagination and “church talk” and fairytale than reality?
Mention of the word “saint” will foster numerous images and thoughts in people’s minds. For many people today, given the rapid increase in the secularization of society, serious thinking about who or what a saint is, is about as common as spaghetti without noodles. Even less common is energy devoted to the idea of the saints as important role models whose lives should be held up as examples for all.
There is also the tendency to think the saints were born that way. That is, they could hardly have been people who struggled with sin and the many temptations in daily life as do us “ordinary people,” but rather were gifted with some great vision of light at or near their infancy, elevated by an extraordinary abundance of God’s grace, and thus supernaturally enabled to easily fix their gaze on the heavenly heights of virtue and holiness and therefore live a life ordered in every way toward love of God. In this vein of erroneous thought, it is easy to dismiss altogether the possibility of becoming a saint. However, the saints started out just like you and me.
If we look at the lives of some of the greatest saints in the history of humankind, we find they wrestled with temptation, and often fell. They were not born saints. The early lives of Sts. Augustine, Teresa of Avila, and Francis of Assisi, to name a few, are all examples of the personal struggle over the proper exercise of human free will. These saints were self-identified sinners. But then something radical happened in their lives. What was it?
Another question you must ask yourself is, “Do I want to become a saint?” Worldly freethinkers are uninterested; it’s all restrictive and limiting silliness and foolishness to them. It is only the humble who fully grasp the beauty in dying to self with open arms to God, a requirement of sainthood. Others fear that having God means giving up all the pleasures of the world, and hardly anything could be so terrible as that. Unfortunately, they misunderstand what possessing God really means and really is.
For instance, we often hear God is love. The mistake we make, however, is in thinking God’s love is simply a bigger version of human love, and we know in the depths of our heart any amount of human love, however great, will not satisfy us forever. We have all experienced some kind of pleasurable love from others, whether it be from friendship, paternal or maternal or filial love, human intimacy, and so forth; yet God’s love cannot be directly compared to these. Gather all your most pleasurable experiences in life into one. Once touched by God’s love, you will realize how very small and insignificant these fleeting moments really are, for they are as nothing when compared to one Divine Glance lasting but a fraction of a second. To compare human love and the pleasures of earthly life to the intense, fiery heat of the love of God, is to compare but a dim candle flame to the combined heat of all the stars contained in 100 billion galaxies—and this analogy, too, falls infinitely short.
Enjoying the love of God directly is not like anything we can imagine, for we have no solid point of reference on which to base our thinking. In an instant, God can deeply change the way see things, transform our understanding, impart an entirely new outlook. When God takes possession of the soul, it knows it has found something great, something worth dying for, although this possession at the same time remains shrouded in mystery. It is as if an ineffable, extremely intense yet delicate and compassionate Light has flooded in, enabling the soul to finally open its eyes, seeing for the first time the true meaning and purpose of its life; it then understands it has tasted a wondrous Love never-before imagined, never-before-experienced, Who has always been the object of its desire. It knows it has found what it has always desperately needed and wanted. In an instant, the soul understands it has found God and true, complete and everlasting love. The whole world, in that moment, is transformed into something different, something new.
If you want to have everything, God alone suffices. If you want to experience complete, life-changing and indescribable love, God alone can supply it. There is no substitute for God. There is no experience like the experience of God. If you want to be kissed by the Divine Fire who will burn within your being for eternity, providing continuous warmth and love, companionship and peace, happiness and security, then you will need to give up yourself to God; you will need to become a saint. It is not a way of life for the fickle or for cowards, but rather for the determined and persistent and courageous. It will not be easy, as the cross of Christ clearly reveals, but the rewards are unimaginably great. Do you want that life? Do you want to become a saint?
Above we noted how something radical, at some point, happened in the lives of the saints. Some moment came and passed, leaving them different. It is as if they were each being tossed about on a stormy sea, when suddenly a sure, certain and loving wind filled their sails and began to push them along toward a new, unseen yet highly desirable destiny.
The life-giving wind that blew across the decks of their ships was God, and upon noticing this Divine Wind and how highly desirable it was, the saints urgently and properly rigged the main sails in order to allow it to carry them along. All throughout the remaining voyage, they diligently manned the helm and held fast to the course.
In other words, the saints acted on a desire for God. This desire originated, of course, in God, since it is God who infuses us with a thirst for himself. God makes us want God. This he does in order to draw us to the only source of perfect and complete happiness in the entire universe: the infinite Other, Creator and Father, whose life is Love and whose love is Life. It is God who gifts us with any desire or strength to seek the infinite and eternal, to join into unity with himself and long for everlasting life in Christ, and therefore order our lives according to the charity, purity and holiness required in living as a saint in docility to the Holy Spirit. The saints, then, took up the desire for God by responding fully to God’s plan for humanity. That is a crucial concept to grasp, since in God alone, our origin and source, is found the fullest possible dimension of human life.
God has placed a thirst for himself inherently within the human heart, so we would seek out and then find our way to the destiny and goal of human life—Itself the infinite Love we all unceasingly crave. However, God does not merely call us to a “nearness” with the Divine Mind, nor to simply take his hand, but rather calls us to share in his own divine life. The Creator invites us to become divinized by granting us the ability to participate in his supernatural life, made possible by the saving death of his Son, in becoming his adopted sons and daughters. If we will reflect on that a moment, we can begin to see the wondrous depth and breadth of God’s plan of immense love. The fact that created objects and creatures remain unfulfilling is proof of our need for God who alone is superabundantly capable of granting human fulfillment. Everything is ordered toward perfect goodness, toward your goodness! You are called to the permanent reception of divine love! The saints, then, in their free response to the divine call to communion with God, were acting in a fully human way. They said “yes” to Divine Love.
When we speak of the saints’ response to the call of Divine Love, we must recognize two important facts: first, all is God’s grace. It is God who begets the desire in us for himself and for any good; it is the Holy Spirit who draws us toward Christ, urges us to pray, and provides the means for us to engage in prayer; it is God’s love poured out upon us and into us that conceives within us a thirst for love, companionship, intimacy, solidarity, mercy and forgiveness and all other good things. Further, the gift of God’s grace cannot be merited; it is a free gift entirely beyond the powers of human nature to obtain. That fact should inflame our hearts with gratitude over God’s superabundant goodness. Second, the saints responded to God’s grace. Grace does not destroy the power of human free will. You can refuse to listen, you can fail to respond; and, at any time, however advanced you may be or think you are in the spiritual life, it is always possible to turn away. The importance of a full, free, loving, obedient and continuing “yes” in response to God’s call to love during our earthly pilgrimage cannot be overemphasized.
We have spoken about the importance of taking up the desire for God. You must act; that is what the saints did: in a determined and focused way, they marched along in fellowship with Christ, the light that “shines in the darkness” (Jn 1:5). But how do you go about doing that? Specifically, what are you to do in order to respond to God? Here we arrive at what is often referred to as “taking up the means.”
The important thing to realize is, God himself has provided a means of salvation, a doorway held open for you through which you are invited to walk a path of light that leads into ever-greater light. The means of salvation is Christ, of course, but there is more to be said, for Christ founded a holy community, his Church, as a means for future generations to receive the truth of the Gospel and the sacraments of life and therefore attain the fullness of God’s salvific plan. It is the Church who carries on the ministry of Christ. It is through the Church that we learn about Christ and, in fact, the full truth about the mystery of the human person. In becoming a sacramental people fully incorporated into the Church and into the life of Christ, a people whose life is the Gospel, we enter into the plan of God that is directed toward our permanent reception of divine love. To take up the means, then, is to fall in love with the Person of Jesus Christ—a way of life and state of existence lived out within the nourishing womb of holy mother Church.
Stated another way, to take up the means is to strive to make Christ’s story our own story. It is to embrace God’s salvific plan for his people, a plan borne in the Father’s heart from eternity, for “God created the world for the sake of communion with his divine life, a communion brought about by the ‘convocation’ of men in Christ, and this ‘convocation’ is the Church” (CCC 760). It was Clement of Alexandria who wrote, “Just as God’s will is creation and is called ‘the world,’ so his intention is the salvation of men, and it is called ‘the Church.’”
It is crucial to guard against the attitude so common today that stubbornly insists on finding God on one’s own terms. Lots of people want God only as they want him. There are many variations of this phenomenon, some subtle and others not so much. Examples include the “I’m spiritual but not religious” folks. Others insist it is possible to access the Divine Mind if they but apply some special meditative technique, as if God is merely an impersonal mechanism that can be manipulated at will, turned on or off like a light switch. It’s found in those who say they are Christian but live as practical atheists as if God does not exist.
There are other variations. One is found in the millions of Christians who hold up the Bible as their sole point of reference for the faith and then, displaying an individualistic and selective reading of Scripture, easily dismiss the third commandment of the Decalogue, as well as those portions of Scripture which fail to concur with biases against the authority of the divinely founded Catholic Church, such as Matthew 16:17-19 and 18:15-18. Of course, Catholics as well are often guilty of heedlessly ignoring the Third Commandment and the authority of the Church when they willfully forgo attendance at and participation in the divine liturgy, except on those days of “special occasion,” such as Christmas and Easter when they deem the Mass to be appealing. It is also found in the numerous Catholics who insist on an experiential, subjective understanding of the Faith and who largely prefer a doctrine-free environment since the mention of words like “obligation” and “dogma” and “absolute truth” and “teaching of the Church” turn them off. Then there are those who discard the classroom of human history, accept or reject whatever they wish, and then adamantly insist they are truly and authentically living by the Spirit, since it all fits with the “voice of their conscience.” The point is, while God makes an impression on whomever he wills at the time he so chooses, the saints did not find God and then follow Christ on their own terms, but rather on God’s terms.
While it is obvious that we suffer the effects of Original Sin and each have our failings, there is a big difference between authentic repentance in a spirit of humility, unintentional ignorance, a sincere desire for growth in virtue and obedience and holiness and so forth, as opposed to an attitude of stubbornness and pride that insists on relating to God on our own terms and in accordance with our own desires. In other words, there are those who are open and those who are closed off. If we are open to God, then we must also be open to learning the truth. Once it is heard, the humble who desire the love of God embrace it. That is what the saints did.
Again, we must not lose sight of the fact that God has a plan for sweeping us up into the life of the Holy Trinity. It is not our plan but his plan. That plan is the Catholic Church, whose words of truth and sacraments of life, when embraced in free and loving obedience, usher us toward our divinely ordained destiny by incorporating us into Christ and conferring upon us the gift of the Spirit. Within the nourishing womb of the Church, where we receive the risen Lord himself in the Eucharist, gifting us with eternal life, subsists the fullness of truth and the fullest means of salvation. Life in Christ is, then, life in full communion with the Church. If you want to understand your destiny, who you are and who you are called to be, how to live and the goal of human life, these most pressing questions and more are answered through the Church, the city of truth and holy dwelling place, where men learn how to live and how to die.
Do you want to become a saint? To do so is the highest and most fruitful use of your life’s energy. It is, in fact, the very thing for which you were created. There can be no greater plan for you than sainthood, sharing in the life of God as a member of the divine family, since there can be no other alternative outcome in your life exceeding the beauty and magnificence of the salvific plan of God’s loving goodness. It is the Father’s intent for you, one which is rooted in the divine love of God for his children.
Fear not. Everyone has a place; regardless of how you may have lived in the past, there is a future for you in God accessed through repentance. While the path to sainthood will not be easy, and will require sacrifice and determination in living a life of holiness, you will find that in dying to self, in putting sin to death and in living for Christ and for others, there will be an abundance of joy poured into your heart even in the midst of hardship. In the worst of circumstances, the light of happiness will radiate from your eyes. You will find that all things have been made new, even you!
To become a saint is more, not less. Are you ready? Then take up the desire for God; take up the means to God; fill your sails with the Divine Wind of Love who calls you to Himself. Become a saint!
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Photo Credit: Therese of Lisieux, by Unknown photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Deacon Frederick Bartels is a member of the Catholic clergy who serves the Church in the diocese of Pueblo. He holds an MA in Theology and Educational Ministry and is a Catholic educator, public speaker, and evangelist who strives to infuse culture with the saving principles of the gospel.